Good foster parents can make difference

In 2006 and 2007, the population of Clark County’s children’s shelter, Child Haven, reached unprecedented levels. The economic downturn, lack of resources for wraparound services and unemployment created a perfect storm and placed child welfare officials at long odds with advocacy groups. While some child advocates threatened lawsuits, the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center took the approach of bringing innovation to the Department of Family Services.

Among the provisions of a negotiated settlement: a ban on placing children under the age of 6 in group care facilities such as Child Haven; an end to the routine practice of having police remove children from their homes; ensuring legal representation to poor families at protective custody hearings; implementation of a new plan for recruiting and retaining foster homes to meet the needs of young children; and more services to help prevent children from being removed from their homes unnecessarily.

That agreement, Safe Futures, provided a framework for recognizing our shared interest of improving the Department of Family Services — but also acknowledged that DFS is not “the child welfare system,” but rather part of a vast network extending into the community, reliant on a system encompassing physical and mental health services, substance abuse treatment, domestic violence services, education, housing and employment.

Since the adoption of Safe Futures, the county has made progress in reducing the number of children in Child Haven, while increasing the number of case workers and providing options when police removal is necessary.

The key component of Safe Futures: eliminating the use of Child Haven, especially for babies and toddlers, who thrive when afforded continuity in care, not a constant eight-hour rotation of shift workers. The challenge: finding a way to place more infants and toddlers in foster homes without creating a burden elsewhere.

That’s where you come in. The 3,400 foster children of all ages in Clark County need excellent families to provide quality foster care.

Don’t be scared away by the high-profile instances of foster care gone wrong. The culture change underway in Clark County is sifting what does work from what doesn’t. The county recognizes its model for attracting and retaining foster parents needs an overhaul, one that allows DFS and foster families to strive toward full professional partnerships.

The Quality Parenting Initiative adopted in Nevada is modeled after a successful Florida effort credited with improving recruitment and retention of foster parents in a state that shares many of the same challenges as ours.

The QPI is designed to help Nevada agencies strengthen care by developing new strategies, rather than use predetermined “best practices.”

The premise is simple — the goal of the child welfare system is to ensure each child enjoys a safe and loving family. Preferably his own. When that’s not possible, it’s up to the system to provide that child with a respite, whether it be with relatives or a foster family.

That’s not easy, given those attention-getting but rare cases we mentioned and the general negativity sometimes associated with fostering.

The QPI hopes to rebrand foster care and encourage more families to take part. How? By clearly defining and communicating the expectations of caregivers and providing an environment where those needs can be met. And it works, with success stories documenting a decline in unplanned placement changes, a reduction in the use of group care, fewer sibling separations and improved efforts toward reunification of children and their parents.

Foster parenting, like any parenting, doesn’t require dreamy perfection. It requires a perfect desire to give maybe just one child a better chance at perfecting a dream of his own.

The county is investing money and time into improving “the system.” But the best enhancements are for naught without good foster parents.

If you have room in your heart to help give a child a chance, please contact the Clark County Department of Family Services at (702) 455-0181, or email the department at clarkcountyfostercare@clarkcountynv.gov.

Virginia Valentine is former Clark County manager, and Carole Shauffer is senior director for strategic initiatives at the Youth Law Center.

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